The crisis in Burundi, which at one point appeared to be sliding out of control, has managed to defy the attentions of global headline news and disappear into that state of suspended animation called shuttle diplomacy.
The plotted media climax, an anticipated showdown between a defiant Burundian government and the African Union, which had last December resolved to send in 5,000 troops to Burundi to enforce the peace, failed to materialise. Unable to follow through on its earlier determination to confront the crisis head-on, the AU’s Peace and Security Council has gone into diplomatic auto-pilot: it has masked its inaction in the diplo-double-speak of high-level delegations, talks about talks, wait-and-see.
This is not entirely the Peace and Security Council’s fault. In fact, its role in trying to avert a full-blown crisis in Burundi has been nothing short of admirable. As well, the shuttle diplomacy has produced some movement.
In the last week of February, high-level delegations led by UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon and South African president, Jacob Zuma were able to extract commitments from President Nkurunziza for peace talks with the opposition (those members not deemed to be intent on “destabilisation”), and a grudging agreement for the entry of a 100-strong AU peacekeeping force. The blame for the failure of decisive action should be assigned elsewhere: to the heads of state who have the final decision-making authority at the AU.
What is puzzling is why, in the face of a crisis of such potentially disastrous magnitude, did Africa’s leadership baulk?
The crisis is not about a lack of diplomatic infrastructure. In the decades after the genocide in Rwanda, in the shadow of state failures in both East and West Africa, the continent has developed an impressive array of peace-resolution technologies: stand-by forces for military intervention; advisory councils to mediate, etc. It is not a lack of political will that is the problem. Rather, it is the quality of the political mediators that is at issue – their moral authority (or lack thereof) to intervene as honest brokers in the crisis.
The Burundi crisis poses an existential question before the AU: can the AU effectively intervene in a crisis if its political leaders are morally compromised?
For the AU, which arose from the ashes of the genocide in Rwanda, a failure from which its predecessor, the OAU never recovered, resolving the Burundi crisis is a fundamental calling.
It was from the AU’s efforts that the 2005 power-sharing agreement was signed in Arusha.
Arusha was, interestingly, the culmination of several years of diplomacy that featured many of the continent’s leading lights: Julius Nyerere, Nelson Mandela, Jacob Zuma and Yoweri Museveni.
It is instructive to observe what has happened in the intervening years – to take a peripheral view of what else has been happening as Pierre Nkurunziza tiptoed from constitutionalism to join a small quiet club of extra-judicial rulers dotted around the Great Lakes region.
What has been happening is this: everybody is doing it! And Nkurunziza sees no reason why he should be left behind.
Soon after the controversial presidential election that endorsed Pierre Nkurunziza’s third term mid-last year, Yoweri Museveni was involved in mediating the ensuing crisis.
If he detected any irony in the notion that being himself a presidential term-breaker, he was hardly equipped to lecture anybody on the subject, President Museveni has continued to involve himself in peace efforts partly on the basis that he regards Nkurunziza figuratively as his younger brother.
Is there any surprise then, as to why Brother Pierre appears so emboldened? Literally all of his neighbours are either term-breakers, or are in the process of bending, revising or otherwise changing the rule-book to ensure their stay in power.
Not long after the death of Meles Zenawi, a colleague remarked that there was a shortage of African Big Men – and that this was a problem. Not that the continent had rid itself of its military strongmen, its by-hook-or-crook term-breakers, its reluctant democrats.
He was referring to something else: leaders we could perhaps refer to as moral authoritarians. Strong while in power, they had become continental arbiters when they stepped down, institutions in their own right. For a definition, think of Nyerere. There are others, still alive, but it’s a rapidly shrinking pool of Tutus, Soyinkas, Salim Ahmed Salims and Thabo Mbekis. Today it is no longer guaranteed that they will be listened to. Around them, the insistent howls of the moral dwarves, weakened by their tightening hold on the reins of power, grow ever louder.